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Ex-PSNI chief superintendent Gary White: 'The violence in the summer of 2005 was a wake-up call'

Deborah McAleese talks to former PSNI chief superintendent Gary White about why he left the force and how the job of policing changed as the Troubles came to an end.

Published 22/02/2016

Former Chief Superintendant Gary White with £1.5m of drugs seized in Belfast raid
Former Chief Superintendant Gary White with £1.5m of drugs seized in Belfast raid

Q. You were chief superintendent when you decided to leave the PSNI in 2012. Did you leave because you weren't promoted to Assistant Chief Constable (ACC)?

A. Absolutely not. I was fortunate in the last year of service to be temporarily promoted to ACC. Yes, I had applied for the role a few years before and there was some political controversy around that, but for me it was very much in the past. My decision to go was influenced very much by the fact I had been 32 years with the organisation, and that other opportunities had presented themselves. I left the organisation on good terms.

Q. But you were clearly ambitious about wanting to climb the ladder. You were the first PSNI officer to graduate from the An Garda Siochana executive leadership course, which qualified you to apply for the rank of ACC. You must have seen yourself rising to ACC, or maybe higher?

A. I joined at 16, and as a police cadet my ambition was to get into the regular service. As a police constable my ambition was very much geared towards getting out of my probation.

I was hugely honoured to have served the organisation in so many roles and so many ranks. It was more a case of being in a role where you felt you were performing effectively.

I applied for the opportunity to do the course. I thought it would benefit me in securing the role permanently as a chief superintendent. The course was very enriching.

Q. A considerable part of your career was spent in north and west Belfast, where you gained a lot of experience in public order policing. Over the years public order policing has very much transformed from using significant force to holding the line. You were instrumental in that change. Why did you help bring it about?

A. A number of things collided together. There is no doubt there is a different approach to how police handle these things now. Within the mixture of things that brought it about are a number of things, not least the changing environment - it was a changing operating environment. As a result of the Patten Report, we had layer upon layer of accountability. I felt that was very important.

Q. Was there a particular year when you thought it was time to change the poli cing approach?

A. I remember my own role in 2005. It was a particularly violent year. The early part of 2005 was marked by a number of significant confrontations in north Belfast between the police and the republican/nationalist community. The latter part of the summer was marked by a number of disorder events between police and the loyalist/unionist community.

Over that whole summer, as well as the damage to relationships between the police and communities and the number of members of the community injured, we had hundreds of officers who were hurt.

What very much influenced my thinking was duty of care. I thought: 'This can't go on, we need to be doing this in a substantially different way'. Other people within political circles and civil society were thinking the same. The summer of 2005 was a wake-up call for a lot of people. If you look at 2006, 2007, 2008, they were probably the most peaceful summers we have had in north Belfast. I would certainly like to think that the police played a significant part in that.

Q. What was it like being the person on the ground responsible for keeping all those officers and the public safe during public disorder?

A. It was highly pressurised. Lots of things impact on your thinking, like your duty of care for those men and women who you are asking to stand face-to-face with levels of violence. It is easy for people to go onto the Nolan Show saying: 'Oh the police should have done this, the police should have got stuck into them'. But you are guided by the law.

Q. Is there also a concern about relationships with the community when officers are back on normal duties the day after a riot?

A. Yes, I was always also guided by the fact that I was district commander in north and west Belfast. I didn't police Ardoyne and places like that just three or four days a year during controversial periods. I policed them 365 days a year, so I was always mindful of the fact that in addition to physical injuries, it is also about the fracture in relationships between police and the community.

Q. What about inflaming political tensions? Was that a consideration?

A. Yes, of course it was. In a politically charged environment such as Northern Ireland, you do give consideration to the politics and how things look. I think saying otherwise would not be accurate.

Q. The PSNI's approach to public order is very restrained when compared it to policing in other countries. You currently work in a consultancy role in many different countries looking at police reform. What advice do you provide to them?

A. One of the big issues is the use of force in policing disorder. I am able to use the benefit of my own personal experience in Northern Ireland, the initiatives and approaches we developed and the level of scrutiny that required us to be restrained.

A key message that I would advocate in relation to police reform would be oversight. In one case, I was engaged with the South African Human Rights Commission to give expert evidence in relation to the Marikana Commission. That was the inquiry into the police killing of 34 striking miners in Marikana in 2012. For me a key issue of why that happened was that rather than having a culture of accountability, there was almost a culture of impunity in relation to use of force.

There were a number of instances where I became aware that police, on the face of it, used excessive force but there didn't seem to be levels of accountability that would be needed to deal with that. I think the lack of accountability is what led to what happened in August 2012 in Marikana when police shot 34 dead.

Q. But can accountability be too excessive at times and become a hindrance to officers trying to do their jobs?

A. In relation to police use of force, no I don't think it can go too far, unless officers allow it to overly influence decisions.

In the aftermath of so many of these incidents, you get on the Nolan Show lots of people coming on telling the police what they should have done. But as I said to lots of people: 'That's very easy to say, very easy for people without responsibility'. But if a police officer inappropriately uses force - be that by way of a baton, baton rounds or whatever it is - those people who are advocating for a higher level of force, let's see where they are when a police officer is standing in a court being held to account for their actions.

Police are only going to be held accountable for what they did. If you want to change police behaviour, then look at police accountability. I have worked in countries where the levels of police behaviour are not what they are here. Whether that's use of force, everyday service delivery, corruption - in the likes of Somalia and Pakistan, where they don't have the structure around policing that we do here.

Of course, there are people who get frustrated around bureaucracy. But accountability is still extremely important.

Q. Earlier you mentioned the violence of 2005. Was that one of your most challenging years in policing?

A. I joined in 1982, but to me 2005 was a watershed. A few years before we had Holy Cross, which was horrendous. But given the period we were working through - the ceasefires in 1994, the Good Friday Agreement and then the Patten Report, which was being worked through - by the time we got to 2005 we should have been working on an upward trajectory. The sort of images we had been used to should have been confined to the past.

But 2005 had a series of very violent incidents. Starting with the Tour of the North, which ended up in very violent confrontation, then we had Whiterock in June, which was so controversial, and the tensions around it were so high that for the first time that I am aware of it was postponed from June to September. July 12 was also a very difficult day.

Then, as we moved into August, there were significant confrontations between the police and the loyalist community as a result of follow-up searches in relation to a loyalist feud and a show of strength - all this then culminating in the postponement of Whiterock.

Q. Almost 11 years on, are things any better?

A. Well, it is disappointing, worrying and discouraging when you see the police still having to gear up to be ready to deal with high levels of violence. But I certainly think that the events we have seen in the last couple of years would not compare with 2005.

It is disappointing that, 10 years on, we are back there, but one of the things that reassures me is that for the most part with those violent confrontations, people in your position, in the media, will tend to refer to the police as being caught in the middle - the wedge between the two sides. It suggests that the majority of people see the police as being fair and proportionate.

Q. What is it like being caught right in the middle of such violence?

A. It is frightening. You have people throwing rocks, bottles and blast bombs and potentially live fire. I think it is important people recognise it is ordinary men and women who we have asked to do this very difficult and dangerous job.

Q. What is it like for the officers running that policing operation and watching their colleagues stuck in the middle?

A. There's a huge amount of pressure because there are all these competing issues you are trying to deal with - how this looks, the safety of your officers, communities, property. It is very stressful, but how you deal with that is by preparing for it, and that is one of the key issues that comes out of experience. It is also one of the key issues I recognise around the comparison between how police here might prepare and how South African police dealt with it in Marikana.

You have to make sure the proper training is in place, the proper equipment, the proper policy, and of course, you have to practise. In relation to an event coming up, proper planning is in place so that people understand what we are hoping to achieve and how we want to achieve it. More planning comes as a result of more experience, and people experienced at these things understand how they can go wrong.

Q. Back in 2005 the force had many more resources than are available today. Do you think the organisation has downsized too soon?

A. I don't think I've ever met a police officer anywhere in the world saying: 'I've got too many resources, take some away'. It's now: 'How many police officers can we afford?'

We are talking about budgetary cuts which lead to very difficult decisions in relation to numbers of police officers compared to level of demand, although the level of demand here might be different to the level of demand in England and Wales.

Have we downsized too quickly? That's a subjective question. Are police capable of dealing with what they face? Well, I think from the evidence of the summer, I think yes, they are. Would George Hamilton like more resources? I'm sure he would. Would George Hamilton be able to do a lot more with more resources? I'm sure that he would.

But at the end of the day he has no control over that so he has to use the resources he has to the best of his ability.

Q. You would have had a lot of dealings with the Parades Commission ahead of controversial marches. How much of a role, if any, do police have in the decision-making process?

A. The Parades Commission play a really important role because it takes police out of having to make those controversial decisions. But one of the things I was concerned about, though, was when police were giving evidence to the Parades Commission. I often referred to my role giving evidence as verbal gymnastics.

Sometimes, the questions being asked were quite closed, looking for a black or white answer. I was concerned that out of the series of answers police gave to the closed questions, the only logical conclusion out of those was that you would have to let the parade come or stop the parade. But there was no black or white answer. It is all shades of grey.

My concern was to make sure the police were not caught on that hook of making a decision for them. We tried to give them sufficient information to make a decision, so that the decision wasn't made for them. We have to ensure police aren't sucked into a position whereby police are seen to contribute to that decision. A lot of decisions will be difficult to implement, but that's fine - that's what we are there to police.

Q. Did you feel there were attempts to suck you in?

A .On some occasions I think the line of questioning would have sucked us closer to being blameworthy for a particular decision. I had experiences where I felt that they were looking for us to say, to some extent, if things were going to be really, really difficult. I was concerned that the police giving evidence about how things could be difficult could be used as a rationale to let a parade go or not. The implication would be, to a large extent, that police had overly influenced the Parades Commission. There's a subtlety there that we were always trying to resist.

Belfast Telegraph

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